A rather surprisingly low-voltage evening of Vivaldi and Pergolesi at Versailles

FranceFrance Vivaldi & Pergolesi – Stabat Mater pour Deux Castrats: Bruno de Sá (male soprano), Cameron Shahbazi (countertenor), Orchestra of the Opéra Royal / Andrés Gabetta (director / violin). Chapelle Royale, Versailles, 6.4.2023. (CC)

From l-r: Andrés Gabetta (director / violin), Bruno de Sá (male soprano) and Cameron Shahbazi (countertenor)

VivaldiIn furore, RV 626; Stabat Mater, RV 621

PergolesiStabat Mater

‘Sopraniste’ Bruno de Sá seems to be gathering quite a following. He is apparently known for his exuberance, and while his garb was not unfitting for the Versailles Chapel, a thinly-spun ‘cloak’ seemed to signal in intent for some showmanship.

All well and good if the results had justified the means, but this was a rather surprisingly low-voltage evening that felt, frankly, rather under-rehearsed: a general feeling of not being able to let go, plus some moments where everyone watched each other rather anxiously for ensemble purposes might indicate lack of available preparation. I have to say my report sits in some opposition to the audience reaction, a standing ovation (rare in this venue and unique in the events I attended this particular week).

Fascinating to hear Vivaldi’s In Furore iustissimæ irae in C minor, RV 626 (to give it its full title). This was a slightly odd performance, though, in that it was forward-weighted. So instead of the final ‘Alleluia’ containing climactic vocal fireworks, we received something of an emotional decrescendo. There is no doubting de Sá’s technique, nor the strength or agility of his voice, nor his involvement with recitative, nor his sense of line in the Largo aria, ’Tunc meus fletus’, but those final two minutes (a bit less) can have so much more buoyancy and bright power.

The Vivaldi Stabat Mater is far less well-known than its Pergolesi counterpart. Vivaldi’s setting is for solo voice, taken here by the fine countertenor Cameron Shahbazi, a singer possessed of a simply glorious voice, and who was highly expressive in the opening ‘Stabat Mater’. Fascinating to hear the ’Cujus animam’ in such held-breath fashion – Shahbazi’s voice is capable of supreme legato and is almost creamy in tone. At times the strings of the Opéra Royal felt like a second voice in duet with Shahbazi (the active bassline of ‘O quam tristis’, for example); at times, they provided a halo (‘Quis non posset’); at others, they provided veritable shards of staccato sound in the most remarkable texture (in the ‘Eja Mater’). Although the full confidence that comes with familiarity and rehearsal was not fully there, this was a far greater musical experience than the In Furore, for all the latter’s pyrotechnics. Unfortunately, this Stabat Mater shared one trait with the In Furore: a lacklustre final section (here, an ‘Amen’).

Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater had appeared in a very different garb in 2019, under Vincent Dumestre. This present Pergolesi Stabat Mater was a straightforward concert presentation (albeit within a religious building) A pity the delicious dissonances of the opening movement (‘Stabat mater dolorosa’) were somewhat under-acknowledged by the singers. Nice to hear the strings of the Opéra Royal dig nicely in for the ‘Cujus animam,’ and de Sá worked well with them on the core rhythmic displacements in this movement. And while the two voices blended together well timbrally in ‘O quam tristis,’ it did not feel 100% settled. Shahbazi’s ‘Quæ moerebat’ offered a highlight, his velvet voice perfectly contrasting to de Sá’s more piercing sound in ‘Quis est homo’. Shahbazi again impressed, as did the Opéra Royal strings in their bite in the ‘Eja Mater’ (and again later in the ‘Fac ut portem’); a shame the rigour of the ’Fac ut ardeat’ was not more confidently realised. It is difficult to rob the concluding ‘Quando corpus morietur’ of its magic, and indeed much was retained. But if the honouring of those suspensions at the opening and throughout was there, the dissonances of the finale would have spoken all the more.

Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater is a masterwork that should touch the listener to the core, and sadly that was not the case here.

Colin Clarke

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